MESA, Ariz. -- Athletes always try to build up strength in the offseason, typically with weightlifting and similar exercises. But Isiah Kiner-Falefa went home to Hawaii and chose an unconventional route: chopping wood.
Kiner-Falefa’s dad is a tree trimmer and would bring home tree stumps for him to chop in the offseason and recommended he use an ax to build some muscle. Kiner-Falefa said he knew using an axe was something that Brewers second baseman Kolten Wong used to do as well and went along with it.
He said he used an axe every day from November until he came to Arizona to build up that power at the plate. Kiner-Falefa’s dad has been his coach at different levels of his career and has often invested time into making him into a better all-around player.
“I knew I could get stronger every year,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I felt like last year, my swing was there but my mental side of it wasn't there. I had newfound power, and I wanted to be special, so I tried too hard.
“So I think hitting that axe into the wood every day in the offseason is allowing me to just play, and the power is still there. I'm just hitting that ball square not trying to do anything crazy. Seeing it jump off the bat like that is a great feeling.”
Kiner-Falefa said using an ax is not all that unlike people using tires and other makeshift weights to build strength, especially in the days before everybody had weight rooms in their homes. The biomechanics of having a good swing in baseball and being able to swing the axe hard enough to make a dent in the tree trunk are almost identical, he explained.
Swinging an axe is all about swinging under “controlled power,” as Kiner-Falefa put it, making the turn a smooth explosion into the wood of the trunk.
His bat now has an axe handle instead of that of your typical bat. The axe handle keeps everything in his swing square to stop him from breaking his wrist.
“I think the accuracy of that has allowed me to hit the ball a lot cleaner and see better pitches,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I have elite hands, so I think when I grip a regular bat, sometimes I feel like I hit everything. I gotta make sure my mechanics are on point all the time.”
Kiner-Falefa feels his ground-ball rate was too high last season. Axe-wielding, he said, has given him better control of the zone and has helped his muscle memory in the box.
Rangers manager Chris Woodward said Kiner-Falefa is one of the most consistent hitters on the team because of his control in the box and ability to take walks when they come to him. So far this Spring, he’s hitting .300/.462/.400 and is in the midst of a three-game hitting streak.
“It's just his curiosity and just trying to prove himself,” Woodward said. “He definitely is obsessed with being the best player. He's got some pretty deep core values that you know he doesn't stray from. And I think that that's kind of the root of who he is."
Arihara’s second start
Rangers pitcher Kohei Arihara started his second game of Spring Training since coming to MLB from Japan. In the Rangers' 9-0 loss to the Cubs on Monday, he pitched three innings, giving up two hits and one earned run. The defense had two fielding errors, extending the first inning more than Arihara would have liked, but he said he was focusing on just making his pitches and doing his job.
Woodward said he was happy with Arihara’s outing, especially as he forced ground balls without anybody squaring him up.
“I was really impressed with him getting challenged like that,” Woodward said. “I wouldn't call this place [Sloan Park] a hostile environment, but it's probably one of the better places to play in Spring Training on the road. It's a good challenge for him. He was very composed, made pitches and still got the double play.”
Arihara -- typically more of a contact pitcher in Japan -- gave up a lot of ground balls that would have been outs if the defense worked well behind him. He said he plans to continue to be a contact pitcher in the U.S.
“I think the fewer pitches I throw, the better it is,” Arihara said through an interpreter. “So I have to be efficient, get hitters out, and let my defense do their work and throw strikes on my end."
Arihara said he threw all seven of his pitches, and he felt in better control than he did against the White Sox in his Cactus League debut. Between his two starts, Arihara said he focused on locating his pitches more precisely.
Because Major League hitters tend to be more aggressive than those in Nippon Professional Baseball, Arihara has worked specifically on getting ahead earlier in the count.
Catcher Jose Trevino said Arihara threw a lot of quality pitches and was able to take care of his business on the mound.
“He's gonna get his strikeouts, but for the most part, he's gonna attack the hitter,” Trevino said. “Getting ground balls, getting outs -- that's what he does, and we saw that today. He got the ball on the ground, and he made quality pitches. I think, for Kohei, it's about being around the plate, doing his best pitches.”